Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tally ho! Tales from a sandy place

Trixy has been pestering me for ages to write a piece about Afghanistan for this blog. I'm a serving infantry soldier and I have done two tours of Afghanistan. I suspect Trixy wishes me to "tell it like it is", or make some telling revelations about the nature of modern warfare. Other, wiser heads than I have done a far better job of that than I ever could, so I suppose this is a think-piece; please bear with me: Afghanistan is a hideously complex situation and I'm only going to talk about the bits I've seen.

The British actions in Helmand Province glory in the title of "Operation Herrick". Each phase is given a number: summer tours are even, winter are odd, and they change with each new Brigade as it deploys for a six month tour. Herrick 8 (16 Brigade) is ongoing, Herrick 7 (52 Brigade) was last winter, and last summer was Herrick 6 (12 Brigade). At the moment, the Royal Marines seem to be taking the winter tours, the Army the summer. Last summer, the Royal Anglians and the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) took the brunt of the fighting; this summer, the Parachute Regiment are getting their hands dirty.

Enough background info. To analyse a conflict on the strategic level, one has to consider the nature of the beast; are we dealing with total war? Counter-insurgency? Peace Support Operations? I'm not going into this in depth as there is enough debate in the matter to write a book, but in overview, Afghanistan arguably contains elements of all three natures. Certain areas of Helmand are undeniably enemy territory, and when broached (usually on planned, deliberate operations under open rules of engagement) UK forces are guaranteed a good scrap. The "total" war is effectively won, however, and when the Taliban do take us on, they get smashed as they are no match for us mano-a-mano. Predominantly, therefore, the Taliban rely on mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to attack us, as well as engaging in intimidation of locals and all the other hallmarks of the traditional insurgency. Finally, in other areas of the country we are facing a Peace Support Operation as we try and improve the lot of the locals and build some kind of civil infrastructure in a country where there is none. This makes our job extremely hard. The enemy could be working the fields one moment, then pulling an AK47 out of a haystack and engaging us the next. Friend and foe are very hard to distinguish.

OK - hitting the "zoom" button to zero in from a strategic debate to my own lowest-level observations... To debunk a few myths. The most common misconception about British troops in Afghanistan is that our kit is crap. It isn't. It is exceptionally good these days. Perhaps when the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts started there were deficiencies, but for the most part the new kit we're getting is great: the Grenade Machine Gun (GMG) and .50 calibre machine gun ("50 cal") are superb and effectively double the support we can get from our Fire Support Teams. The old reliables of the 81mm mortar and the General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG or "gimpy") are still magnificent weapons and the enemy fear them. The new Osprey body armour is a life saver - on the wrong end of an ambush, one of my platoon had his weapon shot out of his hand and took three 7.62mm rounds to his chest plate - and got up to carry on fighting with another, wounded lad's weapon. And our new rifle is excellent; I didn't have a jam all tour and I fired many magazines. Our new boots are comfy. The list goes on; but the key point is that the Army is neither under-quipped nor under-resourced.

The RAF, however, is a different matter. They don't have enough airframes to go in-and-out of theatre, and those they have are outdated, decrepit and held together with chewing gum - leading to frequent cancellations and delays: immensely frustrating for those waiting to go out of theatre, sometimes losing days of R&R mid-tour leave due these problems. The RAF are also enormously struggling for Chinook support helicopters. We can't move around Helmand without them, and getting flights is a nightmare; once again, far too few airframes. Sometimes, we can't patrol if the Chinooks are being used elsewhere: a massive restraint. The Incident Response Teams (i.e. Paramedics) use them, and if the IRT can't deploy, we don't patrol as there would be no way to evacuate any casualties we might incur.

Casualties happen. My battalion, in a year of non-stop operations, has been immensely lucky not to lose anyone. We have sustained several serious casualties, and that is cause enough for lamentation. When I was serving with 2 Mercian on Herrick 6, we lost four from the Battlegroup in my time with them, including the youngest soldier thus far killed in Afghanistan. I was with his platoon on what would have been his 19th birthday, and it was a sombre moment. It is testimony to his mates, however, that only hours after the sadness of sharing a brew in his memory, they successfully repelled an extensive Taliban attack on our compound. Forget about the "Playstation Generation" or "the youth of today": when the bullets are zipping, the British soldier is easily the counterpart of his World War Two predecessors, or indeed soldiers of any era. Maybe our job is even harder than our glorious antecedents? Last summer, the killed/casualty odds for a combat soldier in Afghanistan were 14-1, worse odds than D-Day in 1944.

Be under no illusion - the enemy in Afghanistan are good, and they can hurt us if we're not very, very careful. Any vehicle moves are undertaken carefully, dismounting troops to carry out metal detector sweeps for IEDs in vulnerable spots. In small-arms contact, the enemy are accurate with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and are brave to boot. Every time, without fail, no matter how large our forces or how small theirs, they will attempt to outflank us and engage us to the death. We're normally more than willing to make that happen for them, but sometimes they get lucky and we need the IRT. They're extremely good at watching us, working out how we do things and exploiting our weaknesses; the return leg of any patrol is always the most dangerous, as the enemy try to second-guess our routes and plant IEDs on our way back in.

pip pip,

Strangely Brown, 1st Battalion the Trinity Tiddlers.

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